Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sophie’s Choice

Quote of the Day

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Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice

I asked [Meryl Streep] how she plays a character in the dark about her fate when, as an actress, she knows the terrible scene is coming…She said she was not sure that her approach was conscious and deliberate, but she only read the screenplay once, and she did not look at the scene again until the night before it was shot. She said she read the scene, had a glass of wine, and went to bed. The scene was not really rehearsed, and when the camera rolled, she was as shocked and horrified as any innocent reader. She told us they shot the scene only once. For me, that is a stunning insight into the ways in which the actor’s art is also the art of storytelling.

Frank Galati, to Stay Thirsty

Written by nevalalee

March 18, 2016 at 7:30 am

“We aren’t trying to beat the market…”

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(Note: This post is the sixth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 5. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Most writers, it’s safe to say, know what it means to work at an unrewarding job during the day while pursuing their literary ambitions at night. It isn’t surprising, then, that many of them vent their frustrations over work in their fiction. Sometimes this depiction is thinly veiled, as in The Devil Wears Prada, or not veiled at all, as in William Styron’s savagely funny takedown of his first job at McGraw Hill in Sophie’s Choice. And whenever a writer uses elements of his own professional background in his work, it’s easy to wonder how much is actually true. In my own case, the art fund depicted in The Icon Thief isn’t exactly a portrait of my own experience, but it’s also true that I wouldn’t be writing about this world at all if I hadn’t spent several years working at a hedge fund that, like my fictional Reynard Art Fund, took great pride in being “smart money”—that is, in gathering and analyzing public information in ways that gave it an advantage, real or imagined, over other players in the market.

When I began researching the novel that became The Icon Thief, I was an associate in my company’s corporate development group, looking into potential new businesses for the firm. (None of my painstakingly researched reports ever led to anything close to a real business, but the work itself wasn’t bad.) At the time, art funds were starting to get some press, but if I ever thought about proposing that we enter the art game, I don’t think it got very far, if only because it was so obviously a bad idea. All the same, it struck me that it might make an interesting basis for a novel. In particular, I wondered what it might be like to approach art investing with the same quantitative tools that my firm had applied to other asset classes. And while much of what I subsequently wrote was pure invention, the recent unveiling of the Arnet Indices—which attempt to track price movements for both individual artists and the art market as a whole, although their claims have been justly criticized—imply that I was simply ahead of my time.

Chapter 5 of The Icon Thief, in which Maddy arrives for her morning’s work at the Reynard Art Fund, was my way of introducing this world to the reader. I put the firm’s offices in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street and Madison Avenue, home to many art dealers and galleries, and modeled its sleek, somewhat sterile interior after that of my old company. The presentation that Maddy attends is a thinly disguised version of the client meetings in which I frequently participated, and the result, I hope, is a fairly painless way of conveying a lot of information to the reader about the fund’s investment strategy. (Like just about everything else in this novel, the original version of this scene was much longer.) The chapter concludes with Reynard challenging Ethan and Maddy to find the name of the mystery buyer from the auction at Sotheby’s, coupled with a considerable financial reward. This also allows me to introduce the theme of Maddy’s money troubles, a late addition to the plot that I’ll be talking about more later on.

In hindsight, if there’s one thing I don’t like about this scene, it’s that we don’t meet any of the fund’s other employees. Maddy smiles at the receptionist as she walks in, but otherwise, Maddy, Ethan, and Reynard seem to be the only people working here throughout the entire novel, when the fund probably employed quite a few other traders, analysts, and back office personnel. At the time, I reasoned that because the plot was already so complicated, I should keep the number of supporting characters to a minimum. These days, however, after Mad Men and other works of art have taught me so much about the power of ensembles, I’ve come to value the moments of serendipity you get from a large supporting cast. In both City of Exiles and The Scythian, I’ve increased the number of characters glimpsed in passing, in hopes that one or two of them will strike an unexpected spark—as they have, in both novels, with surprising consequences. And part of me wishes I’d done this in The Icon Thief as well.

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2012 at 10:11 am

Styron’s Choice

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When the novelist William Styron died in 2006, I was startled to realize that he was eighty-one years old. For some reason, I’d always thought of him as a young man, perhaps because he first became famous at the age of twenty-six, with the publication of Lie Down in Darkness, or because Norman Mailer left us an indelible (and somewhat acerbic) picture of the young Styron in his essay “Some Children of the Goddess.” And one of the most fascinating elements of Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, which I read for the first time this month, is its barely disguised portrait of Styron himself, here named Stingo, struggling to become a writer in postwar Brooklyn. Rarely has a novelist put himself so transparently into his own work, not just in the narrator’s Southern background and hilarious stint McGraw Hill, but even in his future ambitions as a writer, in which Styron’s own career is clearly prefigured. And his decision to place a version of himself at the center of his book is only one of many striking risks he takes in this powerful, technically virtuoistic, but ultimately not quite satisfying novel.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tendency of certain authors to write themselves into the story, which I’ve gone on the record as saying is generally a bad idea. Sophie’s Choice is a particularly interesting case, in which a writer of prodigious talent has put himself so blatantly in the middle of the action that we can’t help but notice. At first glance, it’s an extreme case of an author making himself the subject when the true source of interest lies elsewhere: when we place Stingo’s horniness and self-discovery as a writer on one side and the Holocaust on the other, it’s hard not to sense the imbalance. Yet this is clearly Styron’s intention. Sophie’s Choice is a book of contrasts, of the good humor of everyday life set against unspeakable horror. Auschwitz and Coney Island, he repeatedly reminds us, exist, somehow, in the same universe, and his emphasis on the everyday, often very funny memories of life in Brooklyn, contrasted to what happened to Sophie during the war, is an essential part of the novel’s design.

The trouble, I think, is that when the book offers up such an autobiographical portrait of the author in his twenties—or at least gives us information that makes it impossible to read Stingo in any other way—it only underlines the fact that Sophie and her mad lover Nathan are, by contrast, imaginary. Styron lavishes enormous care on these two characters, and at its best, the novel is a triumph of language, research, and sympathetic imagination. Yet we’re always aware of the author willing Sophie and Nathan into existence, and as impressive as this is, it’s much less persuasive, in the end, than the seemingly unmediated, confessional, personal elements with which Sophie’s account is interspersed. This is an illusion in itself, of course: the impression that Stingo’s story gives of being candid and autobiographical is its own literary stunt. But throughout the book, the sense persists that we’re being shown characters from two different levels of reality—the author interacting with two figures from a dream—and I’m afraid that it ultimately hurts the novel.

This isn’t to take away from the book’s other remarkable qualities. It’s brilliantly structured, shifting back and forth between the Brooklyn of the forties, Stingo’s memories of his Southern childhood, Sophie’s ordeal, and the older Stingo’s reflections some thirty years later. This movement is beautifully orchestrated, and Styron expertly builds toward his final revelation, which, alas, most of us already know. Yet in the end, although Styron, or Stingo, speaks expertly in Sophie’s voice, we remain at arm’s length from her experience. Perhaps the only way for a novelist to responsibly touch on these subjects is to keep us one step away—but the author’s conflation of the narrator with himself only makes us all the more aware of how expertly the story has been constructed, until it seems less like testimony than flawless ventriloquism. Styron was right, in short, to tell this story through another pair of eyes. But was a mistake, I think, to make those eyes so clearly his own.

Written by nevalalee

April 12, 2012 at 10:05 am

Posted in Books

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